Perhaps my favorite characterization of Nico Muhly that I have heard in the last few weeks is “communicator.” Muhly composes music imbued with vibrant emotional associations and bridges genres like classical and pop. He packages intellectual experimentation, far-ranging research and personal psychology into his work and inhabits the flourishing contemporary classical scene as well as the underground Internet. The composer expresses all this with charming wit, pulling from myriad trains of thought at any given moment.
Having studied at Juilliard and Columbia and co-founded the Bedroom Community record label, Muhly is one of the most prominent composers of the 21st century, with over 80 works for the concert stage, in addition to his music for dance and film and his collaborations with the likes of Björk and Sufjan Stevens. He is now working on his second Metropolitan Opera commission.
In addition to his obvious skill he is also an engaging human being, something that was made perfectly clear last Friday in his talk in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, in which he opened up about his process and ideas about music and society, hopping between lectern and piano, psychiatry and whaling, skiing and socialism. Titled “Roots & Pulses” and part of the English department’s “Theory and Practice” series, the lecture gave Muhly the chance to unravel the structures, processes and influences of a handful of his compositions, communicating the human, intellectual and historical forces surrounding his music.
Muhly’s Drones series takes its inspiration from the glacially slow-changing hum of airplanes. Each solo piece in the series is underlaid by an endless droning sound, which in a live setting is created by other performers or the audience. The drone starts before the house opens and continues after the audience leaves, establishing an ambient sonic space like that of any room or universe. The role of the soloist pianist, violist or violinist is to accompany, respond to and counterbalance the drone, eventually finding resolution, according to the “laws of [musical] gravity,” with the tone that is and always will be there.
Commissioned for countertenor and lute, Old Bones grows out of the buzz surrounding the 2012 discovery of Richard III’s body under a parking lot in Leicester. For the sung text, Muhly draws from the scientific press release confirming the body’s identity, a slightly poetic but delirious interview with the president of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society and an ode to Richard’s killer by a “slightly gay” Welsh war poet. This unexpected combination of texts paints a fuller picture not of the king, but of the circumstances of his exhumation – a decidedly unconventional and contemporary distinction. Indeed, Muhly said that his goal was to allow for multiple interpretations, such as reverence for Richard or his killer.
Each part of Muhly’s Control: Five Landscapes for Orchestra deals with some aspect of Utah’s landscape, along with human impulses to control it. Muhly explained that the fourth part (“Petroglyph and Tobacco”) grew out of the strange juxtaposition between ancient Anasazi drawings and colonial writing on the same mountainsides. Muhly sees the historical layering of different kinds of vandalism across the same areas of rock as contrapuntal, making the image into a metaphor for musical language. As a symbol of intercultural contact, the nearness of the different examples of graffiti also relates to a Native American song that sounds “as old as time” but was created in the 19th century to beg settlers for tobacco. Muhly makes the haunting repetitive skeleton of that tune the spine of this achingly curious orchestral work, where cliffs of chords are etched into by ambiguous, un-resolving melodies.
“Beehive,” the third part of Conrol, is perhaps the most conceptually elaborate: Through ten repetitions of the same seven-chord sequence, the piece illustrates the progression from pristine landscape to industrial development. Drawing on contradictory 19th century Mormon attitudes of exaltation and exploitation of Utah’s natural environment, the instrumentation fades from wood to metal instruments. Again, Muhly supplies the listener with the seeds of multiple judgments, employing chords that are major and minor at the same time. While each variation has a distinct sound, I doubt that Muhly’s carefully developed conceit would be apparent without him announcing the symbolism as it plays out. This concern applies to lesser degrees to the other pieces presented, too.
But it doesn’t really matter. The thought process that Muhly displayed on Friday demonstrated the attention and rationale that he dedicates to his work. And if that’s how he produces his vitally inventive, varied and radiant music – music that you want to listen to for its inherent merits – all the more power to him.